“Heartwarming” stories about selfless actions may seem to be intended to renew faith in human nature, but using emotional appeals to skew a factual conversation is a sign of disinformation and propaganda.
In the days leading up to the holiday season, a heartwarming story suddenly appeared everywhere: A little girl in a city just a few miles from my hometown had sold cocoa and cookies in order to raise money to pay off her classmate’s lunch debt. The photographs accompanying the story showed the 5-year-old smiling from behind a small folding table full of treats. “I just tried to explain to her that sometimes people aren’t as fortunate and that we need to try to be kind and give when we can,” her mother told reporters. “Everybody is just so proud and happy and other students are already talking about ways they can also make a difference,” said the principal at the school at which she is a kindergartener. “It goes to show that even one small, kind act from a 5-year-old can mean the difference for someone in their life.”
This story was just one of many of the treacly sorts that inevitably appear in the days just before Christmas. They follow a familiar pattern: A local do-gooder does something nice for disadvantaged people, usually somebody who is not compelled to do so but feels for one reason or another that it is their responsibility. The protagonist is almost always white and attractive, although sometimes if they are very young or very old, attractive can be traded in for “adorable.” There are always quotes from proud relatives or the helpers themselves, and very rarely quotes from people within the disadvantaged communities that are being helped.
If the American public has learned anything about journalism and disinformation since 2016, it should be that stories that use and manipulate your emotions in order to get specific messages across are not coverage, but something else, something darker — in this case, a message to impoverished people about what they should expect, what they’re worth, who will speak for them, and who will come and save them and the slavish gratitude they should display in return.
When you look at these stories through that lens, an uncomfortable truth comes into focus. On an individual level these stories may highlight altruistic actions (but considering how many of them seem to have been photographed or videoed in broadcast-ready chunks, one might question just how selfless they truly were), but taken as a whole, these stories use emotional responses to shape or short-circuit discourse that the public needs to have in order to come to terms with what it finds acceptable as a society. In theory, journalism’s role is to facilitate those discussions.
In other words, this is disinformation in the service of money and power.
Consider this “heartwarming” story from the perspective of students saddled with the dystopian concept of “lunch debt,” which is what children incur when they do not bring food from home and do not have the money to pay for their food during lunch period. If they are unable to pay their debts, they are excluded from school activities and sometimes prevented from participating in graduation ceremonies—and districts have tried to prevent those same students from graduating entirely, for the sin of being born to families that cannot or will not afford to feed them.
Consider what those same students might have to say about this—if anyone had bothered to try to interview them. But even if they were interviewed, students saddled with lunch debt, as with every person in need in stories like these, must participate in a humiliating ritual in order to receive food or shoes or transportation or work, forced as they are to publicize their hunger and poverty so that the wheels of the machines that sustain our unequal system—austerity, corporate incursion into local and national policy, greed, inequality at every step of the way—can continue to turn.
When you start to examine stories like this in their aggregate, what they all have in common becomes impossible to miss. The man who walked miles in the rain and snow to get to and from work who was gifted a car rather than the public examining the need for better transit and care for employees. The homeless former voiceover artist whose feel-good comeback was marred by the untreated mental health and drug issues that had claimed him to begin with. The absolutely jawdropping number of stories about “good Samaritans” paying off school lunch debts without a single meaningful discussion about what it means.
Poverty is expensive. Consider the charges racked up by late and bouncing payments, or the decisions you have to make in order to make money. Childcare is prohibitively expensive, to say nothing of medical help. It’s also boring in a way that goes to the core of your soul. Over time, it kills creativity, and hope, and passion, and anything except the grey, beige boredom of yet another low-paying job until you cannot imagine anything more. And poverty has ripple effects; it means you’re marked from the start by your peers as someone who can’t keep up with them, and if you choose pride over food that means you go hungry—and has anyone ever tried to learn something new through hunger pangs? And it has been well known for decades, confirmed by study after study, that childhood poverty leads to poor outcomes in adults. It is perpetuated over and over in a never-ending cycle of ill health, emotional stress, and a variety of sociocultural ailments that in our “bootstraps” culture has been turned against the victimized individuals.
This little girl from southern California is being used. She’s being used in the service of putting a heartwarming face over a horror: That students go hungry and are publicly shamed for one of the most basic needs of human existence, eating a meal; that the richest country in the world would rather allow its young students to go into debt than feed them for free; that “charity,” which was at one time supposed to be what saved us all from the evils of Big Government and its incursions on everyday life under the guise of taking care of its population, has been reduced to a farce: a little girl selling cookies as students starve.
And how did news organizations get wind of this story, and all the rest of those feel-good pieces? They rarely develop organically; many times, a story originates not from a beat reporter but from a press release blast out to local and national newsrooms. In every case, it’s worth considering: Who alerted the news media about this story and why, and how did it end up going from a local-interest story about a child selling cocoa and cookies to a segment on Good Morning America?
So we’re supposed to focus on a cute kid doing something nice, not the starving students nor the fact that we have something called “lunch debt” in the United States to teach our young people as early as possible what their place in the world will always be (even as the United States imposes on Americans the message that they are free to be anything they want, so that “we” feel that any poverty “they” suffer is a personal failing) and our emotions are hijacked by the heartwarming stories we see about her selflessness and caring as these stories continue to carry water for the very people who passed policies that allowed students to go hungry. And so we’re distracted from the very real horrors of neglect and malice that the nation’s most vulnerable endure day in and day out because we feel better about what we just saw filtered through a charming soundbite.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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